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Just a second to act

2006-07-13 22:31

  Govindan was eagerly waiting for the school bell to ring —— not because he disliked school, no, he quite liked school and was extremely fond of Mrs Shitra Leha his English teacher.

  Govindan, leader of class VIII of the Kurubarapalli High school in Tamil Nadu liked studying, but he also enjoyed wandering about the village and exploring anything he found interesting. And what could be more interesting for a thirteen-year-old than the ancient Natarajan temple, built by the Pallava dynasty. That was where Ravi and he were going after school.

  “Govindan”。 The voice of Mrs Shitra Leha brought Govindan back into the classroom. He sat up with a jerk, brushed back his short curly hair self-consciously and felt himself blush under the teacher‘s questioning glance.

  “Yes, Madam?”

  “Take these exercise books and deliver them to my house. Since school will be over in a few minutes, you may leave right now.”

  “Yes, Madam.”

  Govindan grabbed his canvas bag. On the way to the door, he passed Ravi, brushed against him deliberately and winked at him conspiratorially. They would meet at Janikiram‘s sweet coconut stand as usual.

  But on September 3, 1979 Govindan and Ravi did not meet as they had planned…

  Once outside, holding the pile of books tightly under his arm, Govindan gazed around: in front the Kurubarapalli high road curved its way through irrigated fields and coconut plantations; to his left, two miles away, the rice–straw roofed huts of the village lay bathed in the light of the hot afternoon sun; and there, on the outskirts of the village, he could see the ruins of the Natarajan temple, dreaming of yesterday‘s glory amongst softly swaying palm trees and lush paddy fields.

  Opposite the school, on the right side of the road, a truck was parked. From behind it a man emerged, slowly, on shaky legs.

  Was it the driver? No, this man was far too old. There was something odd about the way he tilted his head, something strange about his dark, hollow eyes staring straight into the sun. Barefoot, with only a faded lungi tucked carelessly around his waist, he tapped the ground before him with a long stick. In his right hand, which shook pathetically, he held a bowl.

  “A beggar,” whispered Govindan. “Oh God, he is blind!”

  A hot wave of pity welled up in him. Govindan fished inside the pockets of his shorts and then inside the breast pocket of his white cotton shirt for a coin, but in vain. Wasn‘t there anything he could give? “Maybe there’s something inside my school bag,” he thought.

  Bending down to search among his books he suddenly became aware of the hum of a motor engine. He raised his head, and looked at the empty highway. A lorry was racing down at tremendous speed.“Why isn‘t it slowing down, ” wondered Govindan.

  “With such a sharp bend ahead the driver won‘t be able to see the parked truck or the blind man behind it.”

  “Watch out!” he heard himself shout at the blind man. “A lorry is coming straight at you”。 Then the absurdity of his words struck him. The old man was blind. He couldn‘t see the lorry. He wouldn’t know which way to turn.

  The beggar stopped and jerked his head around. A puzzled expression crept over his face. He looked straight at Govindan, looked at him but couldn‘t see him.

  And down the hill, at ever-increasing speed, raced the lorry.

  “Oh! God, I have to do something.” Govindan dropped his bag and the thirty-eight exercise books of class VIII. Waving his arms frantically he shouted at the top of his voice, “Stop, stop…the beggar, the beggar…” Then he turned towards the old man who stood helplessly in the middle of the road, his pale lips open in a voiceless cry. “Run!” yelled Govindan. “Run, save yourself!”

  But he knew that the old man wouldn‘t run. If somebody had to, it was he, C. Govindan. But he had to do it now, that very instant, without losing a moment or it would be too late.

  Govindan spurted forward. Thumping the ground with his bare feet he charged across the school-yard to the edge of the road. There he stopped, waved and shouted, “Stop, slow down!”

  The driver of the onrushing lorry shook his head. “Look at this village boy,” he thought, “ thumbing a lift home, eh? What is he doing? He isn‘t going to cross the road, is he? Oh God the fool!”

  The driver blew his horn and slammed down his foot on the brakes with all his might. “If I skid,” he thought, “ that‘ll be the end.”

  In a burst of speed Govindan had reached the old man and flung himself at him. The old man shrieked, his stick and bowl flew out of his hands. Then both Govindan and he crashed to the ground.

  Wrapping his arms protectively around the old man‘s shoulder Govindan took the brunt of the fall. They bumped over the rough surface of the road like an aeroplane crash-landing. The gravel stung Govindan’s knee and bit into his skin. He winced and shut his eyes.

  The lorry screeched past. It missed the boy and the old man by mere inches, and finally came to a halt some twenty yards away from them. “Oh! God, God,” cried the beggar. “What is happening?”

  Govindan forced his eyes open and looked into a pair of hollow sunken eyes, hazy and dead. He shuddered and swallowed so that his voice wouldn‘t crack as he whispered, “We are safe, grandfather, don’t worry.”

  The old man coughed and stuttered, “I don‘t understand, I, I…。 Where is my stick, I need my stick. Without my stick, I’m lost.”

  “I‘ll get it for you, grandfather,” said Govindan. “Come, get up.” He helped the old man to his feet and holding him by the elbow led him to the side of the road.

  Suddenly a sharp pain shot through his knee. His hand was throbbing. Blood trickled down his cheek. Govindan wiped it off with the back of his hand and turned around to look for the old man‘s stick.

  Then he saw the lorry driver, marching towards him, shaking his fist violently. From under the cap that was pulled low down on his forehead, his eyes blazed with fury. He bellowed something in a language Govindan did not understand.

  Why was the driver so angry? Govindan had done all he could to save the old man. It wasn‘t the old man’s fault either. “No, no,” cried Govindan and stepped in front of the beggar protectively. “Let me explain.”

  The driver paid no attention. In three more strides he was at the boy‘s side, had grabbed him by the shirt and was shaking him vigorously.

  “Sir,” cried Govindan, “listen please”。 But how could he explain when the man didn‘t speak his language?

  Gesticulating frantically Govindan cried in broken English, “the old man…blind. No seeing. No seeing truck.”

  The driver raised his fist threateningly.

  But the blow was never struck. Suddenly loud shouts, “Get him!” rent the air. Like a swarm of bees the children of Kurubarapalli high school rushed towards the road. “Get him, get him, he has caught Govindan!”

  Startled, the driver turned around. Shaking his fist he shouted something incomprehensible.

  “Let go, let go of him,” the children cried. “Govindan, we are coming. Let go, or we beat you.” And like a pack of wolves they leaped at the driver and would have pulled him to the ground had not a commanding voice checked them, “children, children, what is going on. Off the road, off the road. We don‘t want to have an accident. Off the road, do you hear?”

  Reluctantly the children got off the highway, mumbling angrily under their breaths, “ The coward. He should be sent to jail.”

  The headmaster beckoned Govindan and the lorry driver to the kerb while Mrs Shitra Leha attended to the old man.

  “Sir,” said Govindan urgently, “let me explain. I did all I could to save the old man. I don‘t know why the driver is so furious?”

  The headmaster put his hand affectionately on Govindan‘s head. “I saw what happened, my boy. I am proud of you. A second’s delay and the old man would have been dead. Now let me talk to the driver.” With these words he turned to the man who was still fuming beside him. “Do you speak some English?” he asked, not unkindly.

  “ A little. Let me tell you your school kids…。”

  “Wait a moment. Allow me to explain why Govindan dashed across the road.”

  The children watched the two men, their eyes fixed on the driver, whose face suddenly turned ashen. There was a tremor in his voice as he murmured, “I see.” Then he turned to Govindan and said in his broken English, “I am sorry. I am very sorry.”

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